Same, But Different

24th NOVEMBER 2018

I wake around 9.00am to find Joe is already sitting in the lounge, laptop open and catching up on some work. My breakfast is a heady mix of Cheerios and banana, before I say Goodbye to Joe and head out of Tirana. Although I’m starting back in Albania, I don’t really want to be retracing my steps from the summer, so I’m going to stick to the coastal route this time. There are certain occasions where I will have to revisit places though, and today’s return to Durrës will be one of those.

There is a motorway from Tirana to Durrës, but of course I can’t use that on my bike. A couple of easy junctions get me out of the city and onto the alternative main road heading west towards the coast. I’ve got about 40km to cycle today, so just take it slowly on a road that is horribly bumpy and potholed in places. For lunch I stop on a hill and watch an amateur football match that is taking place on a pitch below me. At one point I’m messing about with my panniers, when I hear the sounds of cheering and realise that I’ve missed the only goal of my lunch break.

I carry on slowly past the town of Pezes, where a stern, old, communist-style monument dominates its road junction. Then before I know it, I can see the Mediterranean and I’m on a stony, messy downhill towards Durrës. I reach the coast about 10km south of the city, but I’m so out of practice that I struggle along lazily for these final kilometres. All day I’ve been asking myself why I do no training in between cycle trips ?

The Durrës beachfront has a very different feel to when I was here two months ago. Then it was a calm, sunny thirty degrees with people milling around on the promenade and in restaurants. Today it’s about fifteen degrees and cloudy, with a fresh wind blowing in from the sea. There must have been a storm recently too, as the once sandy beach is now covered by masses of seaweed. A lot of restaurants have closed for the winter and there’s not many braving a walk along the seafront today. I almost wish I hadn’t seen the place looking so sorry and quiet, as it was one of my favourite spots from the summer.

My accommodation this time is a three storey B&B run by an Italian lady who could be aged anything from forty-five to seventy-five. She lives on the ground floor along with two dogs and three cats that she brought with her from Italy. She is very hospitable though, and gives me a big glass of red wine and some parmesan cheese on arrival. For dinner I just polish off my road food, as it has started to pour with rain outside. It’s pretty chilly at night and I even take to turning on the room heater, which would have been unthinkable back in September.

For the next two days I remain in Durrës, amidst rain, thunder and lightning whilst waiting for a weather window. I’m treated to ‘Italian’ breakfasts, which means they are based mostly on bread, but she does mix it up with feta cheese, biscuits and ridiculously strong coffee. My nights are plagued by the piercing, screechy sounds of cockerels calling, which in turn sets off the local dogs. I’m in the second largest city in Albania and it sounds like a farmyard outside.

It’s still raining on my third day, but I decide just to cycle anyway, for fear of going stir-crazy otherwise. When I left Durrës in September I had been cycling for three months and was actually quite fit, so managed the 85km to Fier easily. Now I’m only on my second cycling day and about to face a brutal, all day headwind, hence the reason I’ll only be travelling 53km to Lushnjë today. The wind is strong and in my face from the moment I get down to Durrës seafront, and my progress is painfully slow. These roads are flat and straight, so the wind is constant and I take an age to cover the first 20km to Kavajë. There are a few spits of rain, but I just carry on in my t-shirt, sheltering under bridges till the showers pass. Soon the rain gets heavier, and soon I’m donning my kagoule.

The next section of road is a motorway that I cycled illegally in the summer because the detour onto minor roads was far too long. I decide to use the motorway again, as it’s the most direct route to Lushnjë and will get me out of the rain more quickly. However, I might have angered the Road Gods as rain starts to pelt it down furiously as soon as I get near the motorway. A guy with a roadside fruit stall beckons me to join him in sheltering under his canopy, but stupidly I carry straight on. Five minutes later I regret that decision as I am drenched through to my skin. My socks are soaked inside my boots and I can hear them squelching every time I turn the pedals. Once the rain passes I’m still dripping wet and still fighting this draining headwind. If the cops pull me over now I wouldn’t care. In fact I would welcome a lift for the final few kilometres to Lushnjë.

Eventually I do crawl my way to town and find Pilo Lala, which is a restaurant with rooms for rent above. A powerful looking waitress takes both my pannier bags and marches me upstairs with them. I’m straight into a shower which is deliciously hot, but sadly only for five minutes. My room does have air-con though so I set it to ‘heat’ and take turns hanging all my wet clothes from the vents in an attempt to get them dry. It looks as though I was correct in taking the motorway option, as a massive thunder and lightning storm hits town thirty minutes after my check-in. I’ve come slightly inland getting to Lushnjë, but tomorrow I’ll be heading back to the coast and onto new roads that I’ve never travelled before.

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